The Nature of Creative Inspiration and Practice – Inspiration from Hilary Mantel

Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.

Hilary Mantel with portrait of Thomas Cromwell

I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing.  It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and  I loved it.

I’ve read the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and plan to read the final book of that trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.  

When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say  from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.

David Helfgott performing in Sydney
David Helfgott performing in Sydney

Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation

Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.

The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.

Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her.  He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!

Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.

In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career. 

He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.

There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.

Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!

Ghostly Encounters, Earthbound Spirits and a Promise of Love

Recently my sister in Australia sent me a set of DVDs – ironically made in England,  containing a documentary series on Great British Ghosts narrated by Michaela Strachan for the BBC. The set also included a third documentary, narrated by Paul McGann in a balanced, neutral tone, called Ghosts of the London Underground, and this was by far the most compelling of the three.

Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann
Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann

Traditionally in England, sightings of ghosts such as grey ladies in sixteenth century properties can be attributed by sceptics to over sensitive or highly-imaginative people tuned in to the atmosphere whilst staying overnight in Tudor coaching inns.

But the ghosts of the London Underground have a different character. Each story in this documentary is told by a worker whom you would describe as ‘a totally down to earth, practical no-nonsense bloke’ whom many might  consider diametrically opposite to the popular image of the type of person who claims to have ghostly encounters. Some of those who told their stories said “I don’t believe in ghosts… but I’ve had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life as something which happened to me which has no explanation.”

Beneath the ticket halls, walkways, escalators and tunnels through which so many people stream, carrying out their daily lives, there is another story: the lingering residue of the souls of people who died terrible and tragic deaths,   and somehow imprinted a psychic recording into those tunnels; and not just the ones which have been abandoned.

One day I believe we will fully understand why and how these things happen, but right now, to my knowledge, we have no satisfactory over-arching philosophy to account for these experiences. I shrink from believing that the soul of a human being can possibly be condemned to wander for years close to the place where they had the worst experience of their life on earth. And I cannot fathom why the essence of a person should continue to walk in the place where their life ended, apparently unaware of the fact that they’re dead. Yet living people have had and continue to have experiences which would indicate this as an immediate explanation.

My new upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit contains several ghost stories and an element of the unexplained, and I admit to being fascinated by these phenomena. I used to love Tales of Mystery and Imagination on TV in the past, and not long ago read and reviewed Classic Tales of the Macabre by masters of the ghost story genre: a dazzling display of atmospheric writing from masters of the craft, that demonstrate the art of suspense, with the build-up of horror. The stories in this book are must-reads for anyone seeking to write in the genre nowadays; they range from supernatural to psychological subjects, and all of them are beautifully-written..

However there is another aspect of these experiences. If they are psychic recordings of energy, the fact that they draw the living to engage emotionally with certain tragic life events that happened to individuals in the past, is on one level a good thing.

Of all the millions of beings who’ve been through this world, ghosts are few and far between. And many pass through leaving no mark at all. Nevertheless, there are a few who do indeed leave a mark. And people who’d otherwise be ignorant of their existence are drawn not only to them and to their story but in such a way that they engage emotionally with it.

What we do with this idea depends on a number of factors, not least our worldview.

From a Christian point of view, the fact that every diocese of the Church of England has a “deliverance ministry” (no longer using the term “exorcism”) this presupposes that Christians do actually accept the idea of “earthbound spirits” who need to be released.

Christian theology asserts that each individual soul who has ever lived is loved by God.

In Revelation 21: 3-4 we read these words “One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes and I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.”

This is a promise to hold onto, for those of us who are drawn to investigating these ghostly encounters.